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Cities may follow D.C. hazmat shipment ban

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on February 6.)

WASHINGTON -- Washington's decision to ban shipments of deadly chemicals and explosives through its neighborhoods may inspire other cities to follow suit -- to the railroad industry's dismay.

The District of Columbia City Council on Tuesday passed emergency legislation that would for 90 days block train and truck shipments of hazardous materials within two miles of the Capitol -- anywhere in the federal heart of the city where Congress, the president and the Supreme Court work.

The idea could "be symbolic and start spreading across the nation," said Arizona Homeland Security Director Frank Navarette, who worries about the tanker railcars that are next to the Statehouse in Phoenix.

The railroad industry isn't happy about that possibility.

"If other communities then passed similar bans, it could make it impossible to ship these materials anywhere," American Association of Railroads President Ed Hamberger said in a statement.

The Transportation Department will review whether the ban is legal once Mayor Anthony Williams signs it into law. CSX Corp., which owns tracks that run four blocks from the Capitol, says it may take the city to court.

According to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, a rupture of a chlorine tank car next to the National Mall could kill 100,000 people within a half-hour, depending on the weather.

In 2001, a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed inside of a Baltimore tunnel, shutting down the city for days, postponing baseball games and causing millions of dollars in damages.

Baltimore Mayor Michael O'Malley is closely following the developments in Washington, said spokeswoman Rachel Guillory. "We'll continue to watch how this plays out," she said.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said other cities will follow Washington's lead if the federal government doesn't order hazardous shipments rerouted from crowded neighborhoods.

"I expect the D.C. Council vote to be the first, but not the last, vote of its kind," said Markey, who plans to file a bill to require rerouting trains that carry dangerous materials when there's a better alternative.

Mark Hatfield, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said rerouting is just one way to make sure freight is shipped safely.

Railroads have already tightened security, he said, and the government takes "a very determined and deliberative approach to find out where the vulnerabilities are."

The railroad association says its safety record shows that rerouting isn't necessary: Of 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped annually, 99.996 percent arrive safely.

But local officials aren't so sure.

"Is it being done as safely as it can be done?" asked Bob Young, mayor of Augusta, Ga., 10 miles from Graniteville, S.C., where last month a train wreck unleashed a toxic cloud of chlorine gas that killed nine people and injured 234. "That's the question we're all seeking the answer to."

Monday, February 7, 2005

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